Monday, August 31, 2009

Turtles have good reason to be nervous

Simply Living

(First appeared in Orlando Sentinel August 31, 2009)

I scare turtles. I don't mean to. I certainly don't want to. But all I have to do is walk outside and turtles tremble. SPLISH! SPLASH! Two more of the hard-shelled creatures dive for cover.

The screen door is the real culprit — that and my preoccupied mind. Opened screen doors have a tendency to close loudly, especially if the person opening them (me) forgets to prevent the door from slamming. BANG! The wooden door swings shut. Another reptile dives for cover.

I live next to a turtle-dense lake. I don't know how many of the carapace-covered critters reside in our 12-acre pond, but I routinely see them basking on logs, rising to the surface for air and, occasionally, walking over land to lay their eggs.

Turtles are ancient beings that traversed the water-covered Earth during the time of most dinosaurs. There are 50 turtle species in North America, with 26 types in the Sunshine State. Of those 26, 18 types of turtles live in Florida's freshwater lakes and rivers. Fossil researchers report that most turtles look much the same now as they did 150 million years ago. The adage "If it ain't broke, don't fix it" applies to these well-designed lung-breathers.

The turtles I routinely frighten are usually sitting on top of a partly submerged oak log that I asked Ralph to place not far from our beach. My thinking was: (a) if he placed the log there, turtles would sit there and sun themselves (they do); and (b) if they came and sunned themselves, I'd be able to watch them while I'm on the beach (unfortunately, I can't).

My reasoning didn't take into account the self-preserving tendencies of an animal with a history spanning millions of years. If a turtle senses danger, its first instinct is to disappear. It does so by either retreating into its shell or diving into the water. The turtles sunning themselves on the oak log near our beach opt for an aquatic retreat.

I suppose they haven't gotten used to me yet. Ralph placed the log on the spit of land near the beach just a few months ago, and although the turtles discovered it almost immediately, they haven't been using it long enough to realize that I mean them no harm. These toothless reptiles have good reason to fear humans. Pollutants often contaminate their watery habitat, and much of it is lost to development. Although many animals prey upon mature turtles and eat their eggs, humans are their greatest threat. People hunt turtles for food, kill them for sport, harvest babies for the pet industry and run over them with cars and trucks. So much destruction has taken place for these remarkable creatures that the International Union for Conservation of Nature lists more than two-thirds of the world population of turtles as threatened.

In Florida, a regulation passed in July attempts to help waning turtle populations. The rule passed by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission prohibits the commercial harvesting of freshwater turtles in public and private waters. It is the nation's most restrictive turtle-harvesting rule. Scientists hope the new regulation will give declining turtle populations a chance to rebound.

I hope so too. Any animal that has survived for millions of years deserves a chance to continue living into the next millennium. I don't like scaring turtles every time I thoughtlessly slam the screen door, but if these gentle creatures need to react to potential danger by disappearing into the water for a while, I'll understand. The important thing is that they don't disappear forever.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Taking baby on walk down memory lane

Simply Living

(First appeared in Orlando Sentinel August 24, 2009)

Thirty years ago, when I was a young mother living on Cape Cod, I used to slip my infant daughter into a blue corduroy Snugli and take her for long walks. Inevitably, Amber would fall asleep, I'd get some overdue exercise, and we'd both be outside feeling the breeze against our skin. Sometimes I walked along a nearby bike trail. Other times I'd head toward the beach or town, strolling alongside roads and stretches of woods until I arrived at my destination. Whichever route I took, I always returned home with two things — a sleeping child and a wildflower bouquet.

I was thinking about those pleasant hikes the other day when I took my grandson for a stroll through my daughter's neighborhood.

In preparation for our new role as grandparents, Ralph sorted through boxes in the attic looking for our old baby paraphernalia. One of his finds was our reliable Snugli. Even after supporting the rumps of four children and spending a good 16 years tucked away in an overheated attic, the Snugli remained in tiptop condition. After a fresh laundering, it was ready for a new generation of use.

Although Amber and Scott have a spiffy new stroller complete with several cup holders and storage bins, I brought the Snugli with me when I headed over to baby-sit. I'm glad I did because it came in handy. About an hour after Amber left, the baby began to fuss. When even a bottle of warmed milk didn't do the trick, I decided to try the Snugli. After tucking my grandson's 8 pound, 4 ounce body into the soft fabric enclosure, we headed outside for a stroll. Almost immediately, he calmed down.

My daughter and son-in-law live in a lovely subdivision in Winter Garden. It's an older neighborhood with well-maintained yards and wide sidewalks. As I went out the front door, I turned left and started walking in what I expected to be a quick loop around the block. It turns out that subdivisions — or at least that particular subdivision — are not designed for quick loops around the block. A left at the nearest cross street followed by another left at the next two intersections did not bring me back to Amber's house as expected. Instead, it took me in a circuitous route around the neighborhood until I finally — about an hour later — navigated my way back to Amber and Scott's address.

I'm not complaining. It was a good walk, a long walk and a soothing walk for baby Atom, who managed to pass most of the time in peaceful slumber. What it didn't do was yield a bouquet of wildflowers the way my walks on Cape Cod did.

As it turns out, subdivisions, even older ones in more well-established neighborhoods, do not lend themselves to wildflower foraging. In fact, foraging for any sort of plants would be unacceptable behavior in places where the only flowering plants visible are those planted by homeowners to accentuate their landscapes.

In the years when I lived on Cape Cod, subdivisions were a rarity. Most of the homes I passed on my outdoor forays were well over a hundred years old with landscapes that reflected decades of plantings. In the spring, blooms from ancient hedges of lilacs and forsythia overflowed onto roadways. Wild roses and beach plums flourished near the bay. Clusters of delicate violets and the edible red tops of clovers escaped domesticity and wandered out of yards and onto the wayside. Tall stalks of Queen Anne's lace, black-eyed Susan and fluffy milkweed flowers grew with abandon along stretches of woods. I'd walk along my chosen route picking a flower here and another there until, before I knew what was happening, I had gathered a beautiful bouquet.

I haven't been back to Cape Cod for years, but I imagine that most of the stretches of woods have given way to modern housing units where, as in Florida, homeowner-association rules restrict what can and cannot be planted. I understand the need for rules, and I'm glad my daughter and her family live in such a tidy neighborhood with individually designed yards, but I can't help missing the wildflowers. I miss knowing that no matter where I turn, I'll find flowers growing by the wayside waiting to be picked.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Now, where did I put my sunchokes?

Simply Living

(First appeared in Orlando Sentinel August 17, 2009)

Gulf fritillary butterflies seem to share my affinity for Helianthus tuberosus, a member of the sunflower family more commonly known as Jerusalem artichoke or sunchoke. For the past few days I've been looking out my porch windows and watching the orange butterflies land on the bright yellow flowers. Although we're both attracted to the blooms, there's another part of the plant I'm also fond of — its edible tubers.

In April, I bought a couple of pounds of Jerusalem artichokes from my local grocer with the intention of eating a few and planting the rest to harvest in the fall. I've always liked the way sunchokes taste. They have a crisp texture and a slightly sweet, nutty flavor. Although the potassium-rich tubers can be boiled, baked, grated, diced and added to stir-fries, I've always preferred to eat them fresh, like an apple — scrubbed free of dirt before biting into their crunchy goodness. For me, the cheery, daisy-like flowers are a bonus — I'm after the underground rhizomes.

Sprouts began to appear shortly after Ralph and I buried about two dozen of the stubby tubers in a bed of enriched soil. A few weeks later, those sprouts developed rough leaves and tough, hairy stems that grew taller by the day.

"I can't remember how big they grow," I said to Ralph as I watched the garden bed fill with leafy, green clumps. "I hope I picked a good spot."

Plant placement is an art I have yet to master. Twice before, I grew sunchokes in what turned out to be inappropriate locations. I made my first mistake on Cape Cod, and about 10 years ago I miscalculated again in Florida. Both times the plants took over their allotted space, spreading into areas where I didn't want them to be. Jerusalem artichokes are notoriously invasive. If even a small piece of a tuber remains in the soil after harvesting, an entirely new batch of flowers will emerge the next year.

On both of those previous occasions, we managed to eliminate the sunchokes by rigorously harvesting each individual tuber. Now, over a decade later and with previous lessons in mind, I was ready to try again. I chose my location carefully, picking a garden bed completely contained by the house on one side and by a curved concrete walkway on the other. I felt confident the tubers could not escape.

What I didn't take into account was the plant's tendency to sprawl.

Helianthus tuberosus are tall plants — much taller than I remembered. After five months of growth, they stand about 8 feet high. If they stood up straight their height wouldn't be a problem, but they don't. Like many tall plants, sunchokes tend to lean over. To make matters worse, the plant's leaves and stems have a rough texture that's unpleasant to touch.

Unfortunately, the spot where I planted them is right next to our porch door and alongside a concrete path that we use daily. When the stalks lean over, they interfere with both the walkway and entry.

Darn! And I thought I was being so careful this time.

This morning Ralph tried to solve the problem by wrapping a rope around the stems and tying them upright. It was an effective, if not particularly attractive, method. After viewing my husband's handiwork, I suggested we think about relocating the entire patch after we harvest the tubers.

"Got anyplace in mind?" he asked.

I said I did.

"Maybe behind the compost pile?" I suggested. "They could do their spread-and-sprawl thing and not be in the way of any walkway or doors. And if we planted them there, I could see the flowers from my office."

"That might work," he replied.

It's difficult picking the right place for plants. You start with a packet of seeds —or, in the case of Jerusalem artichokes, with a basketful of rhizomes— and try to imagine how the mature plant will look. How much space will it take up? Will it interfere with other cultivars? Will it grow too tall, blend in with other plants or become practically impossible to eliminate if you want to remove it? Although I've made just about every mistake you can make with plant placement, I still find the process exciting.

The Helianthus tuberosus I planted in April are almost ready to harvest. Come September, I'll have quantities of homegrown tubers to eat and share with others. Most people have never tasted Jerusalem artichokes, and I'd like to change that. Despite their negative features — a tendency to sprawl, an invasive growing pattern and rough-textured foliage that irritates sensitive skin — sunchokes have much in their favor. These easy-to-grow perennials not only produce a versatile, flavorful and nutritionally rich vegetable, they have pretty flower heads that butterflies find irresistible.

When I weigh the plant's pros and cons, the pluses win out. Maybe next time I'll pick an appropriate location where the sunchokes can stay indefinitely. I know the Gulf fritillaries would like that and, after three wrong choices, I'd like it too.

Monday, August 10, 2009

There's a fungus among us — and we like it

Simply Living

(First appeared in Orlando Sentinel August 10, 2009)

My husband is a fungi. I know - it’s a (s)poor joke, (there I go again…) but the truth is, my sweet partner of almost 40 years happens to be a big fan of edible mushrooms. That’s why he was so excited when a package arrived last week.

"What've you got there?" I asked after seeing the contents of a large box sprawled haphazardly across the kitchen counter.

"The dried mushrooms I ordered arrived!" he said with unrestrained enthusiasm.

"Oh, yeah," I responded with a tinge of skepticism. "How many mushrooms did you get?"

He handed me the invoice. On it were listed a dozen varieties of fungus with intriguing names such as matsutake, chanterelle and candy caps as well as a few suspicious culinary monikers, including one called "yellow foot."

"What kind of mushrooms are these?" I asked while examining one of the many 1-ounce packages of what looked like small pieces of brown cardboard.

"I don't know," he responded with a giddy smile. "I ordered an assortment so we could try lots of different types. Which ones do you want to taste first?"

"You pick," I said, aware that this particular pleasure was mainly his to enjoy.

We settled on a random assortment, but before any cooking could commence, the dried mushrooms had to regain their lost moisture. Ralph submerged the flat slivers in a small amount of water. Within minutes, the liquid was absorbed and cooking could begin.

He then coated a large cast-iron pan with a small amount of olive oil and added a spoonful of crushed garlic before placing the rehydrated mushrooms in the sizzling oil. A heavy, woodsy smell permeated the air. Using a spatula, he stirred the heady mixture until the mushrooms were soft and well-coated with garlic oil.

"What do you think?" Ralph asked as we began our taste test.

"Interesting," I remarked. "They're a little chewy and tough, but flavorful, too. Which ones are these again?"

We were sampling a mixture of maitake, black trumpet and lobster mushrooms.

Of the three, maitakes were the only ones we had previously tried. Ralph discovered maitakes — also known as "hen of the woods" — after reading an article about them by medical doctor and author Andrew Weil one of my husband's favorite sources of health information. His Web site,, says that "maitake has anti-cancer, antiviral and immune-system-enhancing effects and may also help control both high blood pressure and blood sugar levels."

Weil's endorsement motivated Ralph to purchase a supply of dried maitakes to incorporate into our diet. Much to the chagrin of my 17-year-old son, small pieces of the meaty, nutty-tasting mushroom were soon appearing in omelets, stir-fries, soups and just about any other appropriate (or, from Toby's perspective, totally inappropriate) meal.

Ralph's fascination with mycology more than compensates for our son's lack of interest.

Back in the 1980s, while still living on Cape Cod, Ralph traveled to Washington state to attend a weekend mushroom cultivation seminar with Paul Stamets, founder of Fungi Perfecti. Stamets is a pioneer in edible and medicinal mushroom cultivation. After returning home, Ralph began growing his own crop. About six months ago, my husband repeated the process in Florida by inoculating shiitake spores into a stack of freshly cut oak logs. Thanks to the recent delivery from Oregon Mushroom, we have no shortage of other mushrooms to sample while waiting for the shiitake spores to produce edible fungi.

So far, in addition to maitake and shiitake mushrooms, Ralph and I agree that morels have the nicest texture and most pleasant taste. After working our way through each type, we'll probably reorder only our favorites.

"This was just a sampling," Ralph explained while he reorganized the remaining packages. "I just wanted to try a few different types to see how they taste."

I guess that makes him a sporadic spore-addict. Sorry, the temptation to poke fun(gi) was just too hard to resist.

Monday, August 3, 2009

Grandson's birth marvel to behold

Simply Living

(First appeared in Orlando Sentinel August 3, 2009)

I just experienced the birth of my first grandchild. As I stood at the foot of my daughter's bed, I saw how slow, painful and messy birth is. It's also amazing. More than amazing, really — it's in the company of marvels.

It's not as if I haven't seen it before. Four times I've labored over my own children's births, but on each of those occasions I was on the grunt end of the job. It's completely different being in a position of receiving. Not that I actually caught my grandson or did anything more helpful than offer support, encouragement and an observer's perspective on the baby's progress, but it was a role I assumed with eagerness and appreciation. I was there to receive the result of love — my love for my daughter and her husband, their love for each other and the product of that union: my grandson, Atom.

Despite his name, Atom's birth was not explosive. After more than 41 weeks of pregnancy and a labor that lasted well beyond two days, my daughter's 7-pound, 4-ounce offspring finally decided to grace us with his presence. As I stood alongside the calm obstetrician, I watched my tiny grandson inch his way into the world.

"I see his head!" I announced as a sliver of crown began to appear. With each contraction, his rounded pate grew more and more noticeable before retreating. There was an ebb and flow to his movements, as if he were hesitant to make the final transition.

"Shall I give up this cozy abode for a world unknown?" he seemed to be pondering. "Shall I make my entry now or wait a little longer?"

Giving birth is a visceral experience. Even in the most secure location, the birthing table is anything but a bed of roses. I saw firsthand how new life emerges from a primordial slime. Babies may be born out of blood and agony, but amid the suffering and the mess is an overwhelming sense of happiness, expectation and joy. Do we experience such an emotional slurry at any other time in our lives? So many positive feelings combine with body-wrenching anguish and passion.

Throughout her long labor, I reminded my daughter that her pain would vanish with the birth of her son, and immediately after Atom finally decided to slide into the world, that's exactly what happened. Amber's face lit up with smiles while Scott's paled with the momentousness of the occasion. As the attending nurse laid my daughter's first child in her arms, I felt my heart swell with appreciation for everything that enabled this moment.

I now join the ranks of grandparents around the world doting love upon children of the children they gave birth to themselves. Life is nothing if not an amazing journey, and as I pass yet another bend on this byway, I delight in the marvel that is my grandson, Atom.